“Did you cut yourself? I asked my hostess.
She shook her head. “No. Let’s go into the kitchen.”
“But is that blood there?”
The woman’s face lost two shades of color. “That’s craft paint. I…um…paint. Crafts.”
Her fidgety manner and shifting gaze told me she was lying like a rug. “Where’s Mrs. Mouskawitz?”
She shrugged. “Did she leave her room?” She seemed genuinely confused and I thought again that my hostess was a really poor liar or a phenomenal actress. Realizing I wasn’t getting anywhere the way I was going about it, I tried another tack. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, what is your name. I feel silly calling you Mrs. Bond.”
She was so shocked by my request I could only wonder what her life must be like. She dithered a moment, looking everywhere but at me. By the increased tempo of her finger twining, I knew she was upset. “You know my name,” I said breezily. “It’s only fair that I know yours.”
She gave me a tight smile. “Okay. I’m…Brenda.”
“Brenda Bond?” I narrowed my gaze. She’d told me her name as if she’d pulled it from thin air. “BB, huh?”
She laughed breathily, her hands separating so she could point to the kitchen. “I have that aspirin right in here.”
I bit back a frustrated sigh, nodding. I let myself be herded into the kitchen and sat down at the table, watching her open a small cabinet on the end and look through some bottles there. My gaze kept sliding back to the door leading to the breezeway. I wished she’d go somewhere so I could go check that closet out. “When will Mr. Bond be home,” I asked as she pulled a plastic bottle down and squinted at the label.
“He usually works until nine or so.”
“So late? That must be bothersome.” When she glanced my way, I elaborated. “I mean, you’re always here alone.”
Her lips pinched briefly and then she gave me the tight smile again. “I don’t mind. I really like to be alone.”
I couldn’t really argue with her about that since I felt the same way.
She finally settled on a bottle and dumped some pills into her hand, closing it back up and placing it carefully back into the cabinet. I noticed all the bottles and boxes inside the cabinet were perfectly lined up, spaced evenly and labels directed outward. Thinking of my own jumbled mess of a medicine cabinet, I was torn between awe and concern.
It appeared BB was just a tiny bit OCD.
She handed me three unmarked capsules. “I’ll get you a glass of water.”
“Thank you.” I examined the pills while she filled the glass from the cold pitcher in the fridge. My gaze slid back to the door. If she’d done something to Mrs. M…
She handed me the water.
“Um. Thanks.” I held the pills and the glass while she stared at me.
Something deep inside told me not to take them. “That’s a beautiful painting of you and Mr. Bond.” I nodded toward the stiff portrayal of the couple above the cabinet across the room. She glanced that way and I let the pills fall to my lap before taking a sip of the water. “That’s good. Thanks for the aspirin.”
She nodded. “I was just getting ready to fix dinner. Will you sit for a while?”
“Would you like wine?”
Actually, I’d love some. But I was starting to think I needed to keep my wits about me. “No thanks. The water’s fine.”
She nodded, turning toward the big, stainless-steel refrigerator. “I’ve got catfish filets. I hope you like fish.”
“Love it. Catfish is one of my favorites.
As she bustled around, pulling things from the refrigerator, I got up and walked over to a potted cactus on the cabinet. While I pretended to look at the portrait, I shoved the capsules into the sandy dirt of the cactus. “Did you get this done locally?”
When I turned she was standing a few feet behind me with a huge knife in her hand. I yelped and jumped away, my hands coming up protectively.
She frowned, looking down at the knife. “Oh. I’m sorry I startled you. I was wondering if you like salad.”
“Salad,” I gasped out. “Yeah. I do. In fact,” I held out a slightly shaky hand. “I can chop if you’d like.”
She pulled the knife away, her gaze sharpening. “No. I’d prefer to do it myself.”
I glanced toward the kitchen door. “I’m…I’m just going to go check my messages.” I hurried out of there and nearly ran to the room where I had all my stuff. I slammed my computer closed, throwing it into the bag. Scooping up my duffel, I grabbed my phone off the bed and looked at it. I suddenly didn’t know who to call. She hadn’t really done anything to me and I had no proof Mrs. Mouskawitz was in danger either. I couldn’t tell the police she gave me the creeps.
Lots of people did that but I didn’t call 9-1-1 on them. I’d just leave. That’s what I would do. I could give them an excuse later. Then, I’d tell Nick about the old woman and see what he thought. Maybe we could call an anonymous tip into the police.
Feeling better for having made the decision, I headed back out into the hallway. My pulse was pounding in my chest as I hurried down the hall toward the front door. I skimmed a glance both ways at the end of the hall but the sounds of dishes rattling on the other end of the house told me BB’s location.
I hurried over and grasped the knob and turned. It didn’t move. With a start of surprise, I lifted my hand, looking for the lock. It required a key, like an exterior lock.
I thought about that for a moment and then almost passed out as my blood pressure skyrocketed. I was trapped!
No, I told myself. That was ridiculous. There had to be a key somewhere. But though I searched all around the door, even opening the small coat closet nearby, there was no key hanging anywhere.
While I searched, I kept one ear perked toward the kitchen. I was reassured by the sound of cooking.
Until the closet door creaked when I closed it.
Silence fell in the house. Then footsteps, hurrying in my direction.
I turned and fled back down the hall, diving into my room and locking the door before she could see me. A moment later there was a soft knock on my door. I ignored it, hoping she’d go away.
After a moment I heard her soft footfall back down the hall. I grabbed my phone, staring at it and cursing Nick for never giving me his number. I searched my brain for any plausible reason to call the police. Then it hit me. I could ask the Sergeant how the investigation was going.
I’d started to dial when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but I was desperate. Hitting Answer, I said hello.
A brief pause preceded the sound of a familiar voice. “Mrs. Prince, are you all right? You sound alarmed.”
“Mr. Bond! I’m so glad you called. I’m trying to get out of the house…”
“Get out of the house? Whatever for?”
“I…um…I need to run an errand for work. But the front door is a keyed lock and I can’t find the key.”
“Did you ask Brenda?”
Ah, so that was her real name. Poor thing. She should have married someone from a different part of the alphabet. “She’s ah, busy in the kitchen. I hated to disturb her.” As lame as that sounded, he at least pretended it was a reasonable concern.
“She can get pretty intense when she’s cooking,” he said, humor in his voice. “Would you like me to come home?”
I’ll say! I thought to myself, thinking of the enormous knife she wouldn’t hand over.
Yes!! “No. I don’t want to bother you either. If you could just tell me where I can find a key…”
“It’s not hanging on that little hook inside the closet?”
“No, I looked there.”
“Uh. This system is such a pain. With all the break-ins, Brenda just insisted that we take some precautions.”
“I’ll tell you what, I’ll just come home…”
“No, that’s not necessary…” I hesitated, feeling foolish for my panic. “My errand can wait.”
“Are you sure?”
“I am. Thank you.” I’d disconnected before I realized he hadn’t told me why he’d called.
I returned to my room and locked the door. I tried to lay down on the bed but was driven back onto my feet by a knot of frantic energy balled in my belly. I paced the floor at the end of the bed for a few minutes, thinking.
I needed to talk to Nick. He didn’t know where I was and, when he found me missing from my house he’d be worried.
It was all his stupid fault for not giving me a way to get hold of him. What the heck was he hiding from? I paced some more and thought about Mrs. M. Did I really believe that frail, odd woman in the kitchen killed the old lady and stuffed her in the closet in the breezeway?
I paced some more, my thoughts spinning. After a minute I sighed. Yeah, I did believe it. As strange and unlikely as it seemed. She’d have had to haul the old woman out of the bedroom down the hall and all the way across the house, then shove her into the small closet. Though Mrs. Mouskawitz was small, she probably weighed around ninety pounds.
I doubted Mrs. B weighed much more than that. She could have used something with wheels, I reasoned. Like a wagon. Or a hand truck.
It didn’t seem plausible, but I’d heard enough stories about frantic mothers lifting cars off their children to know that sometimes the implausible becomes plausible under the right circumstances.
If Mrs. Bond…Brenda…had killed my neighbor, she might have realized I was much too interested in the bedroom down the hall and recognized that she needed to move her.
Though none of what I was thinking would explain why I hadn’t heard anything. Then I realized I’d been very caught up in my team calls. I’d had to turn the volume way up on my computer because Doris from Human Resources was so soft spoken it was the only way I could hear her. That meant everybody else’s voices boomed into the room, possibly masking any noise beyond my locked door. Then there was the five minutes where somebody’s dogs decided to bark and howl at a squirrel outside their window and whoever owned them seemed incapable of shutting them up or finding the mute button.
I sighed. Thinking back on it, I recognized that the Apocalypse could have happened in the house and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
At some point over the next hour I fell asleep. A soft knock on my door woke me and I jerked upright, my heart pounding. For a moment I was disoriented, my mind muzzy from the deep sleep I’d fallen into.
Brenda Bond’s timid voice came through the door. “Ms. Prince? Dee? Dinner’s ready.”
I swung my legs over the side of the bed and scrubbed the heel of my hand over my eyes. I really didn’t want to go back into the kitchen with my knife-wielding hostess, but my stomach was growling. Still…
“I think I’m going to skip dinner. I’m not feeling so good.”
To my horror, the doorknob turned and she cracked it open, peering through the crack at me. I pressed my feet against the floor to keep from scrambling backward on the bed and embarrassing myself. “Oh!” Had I forgotten to lock the door? No. I was sure I’d locked it. Which meant she had a key…
“Maybe you’re just hungry? I really think you should eat. It will help that headache you had earlier if you put some food into your stomach.”
The woman apparently didn’t understand the concept of boundaries. “I don’t think…”
“I made you a special dessert,” she interrupted. “Frosted brownies with ice cream.”
Jeez! There was no way I could turn that down. Even under threat of death. “Oh. Okay.”
I followed her down the hall and was shocked to see Mrs. M’s door open. I peered inside, seeing an empty room with a neatly made bed. “Mrs. Mouskawitz is awake?”
BB threw the room a disinterested glance. “She went home this afternoon. I tried to talk her out of it but she was most insistent. She wanted to clean up the mess left behind by whoever killed her son.”
The words were spoken so coldly I didn’t know how to respond. “ But I saw an opening I couldn’t resist. “I should really get home too. I’m worried the vandals who broke in last night will be back.”
“Then you’re much safer here, aren’t you?” She smiled and the effect was astounding. Her whole face transformed under that smile, making her look almost pretty.
She reached out and grabbed my hand. I flinched, tugging it away, and she looked hurt. “I’m sorry. I was just trying to be friendly.”
Despite her strangeness, I believed that she was trying. “No, I’m sorry. I’m just a little jumpy from everything that’s happened. It’s nothing personal.”
She nodded. “Come on, dinner’s getting cold.”
My attempts to converse with her were no more successful at dinner than they had been at lunch. BB said very little, seeming to be weighing her every movement on my reactions. It was a very disconcerting thing and I started to wonder if Mr. Bond, as nice as he’d seemed, might not be an overbearing husband. She certainly seemed like someone who’d been abused. I decided to try to suss out any problems in that direction. “So, is your husband going to be home soon?”
She shook her head, nibbling on a tiny bite of brownie. “Not for a few hours yet.”
“He works long hours, huh?”
“I do too, sometimes. When a project’s on deadline and we’re behind. I get pretty cranky when that happens. Does Mr. B get cranky too?”
Her gaze jerked to mine and something shrewd slid through her eyes before she lowered her lashes and focused on her brownie again. She flaked a tiny sliver of dense, gooey chocolate from the very edge of the treat and slid it between her lips. I didn’t know how she could even taste such a tiny bite.
I could suck a taste that small right through my pores.
I tried again. “Hopefully he doesn’t work weekends? You do get to spend some time together, right?”
She stabbed her fork into the center of the brownie, twisting it to mangle the tender flesh. I leaned away from the fork, wondering at the sudden violence of her action. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t pry.”
“I don’t like him.”
She said the words so softly, I thought for a moment I’d imagined them. “Pardon?”
Her gaze shot to mine again, the unfortunate brownie still under attack as she stared daggers at me. “I don’t like him.” She waited a couple of beats. “That gardener. He stares at me. I don’t like him.”
My gaze followed hers to the large window overlooking the back yard and I jumped. Tony Marrow was standing in the back yard, his dark eyes filled with hostility, and a chain saw clutched in his beefy hands.
My spoon clattered into the bowl in front of me, splattering ice cream over the front of my shirt. “What’s he doing?”
BB shook her head. “I don’t know. He does that all the time. It makes me very uncomfortable.”
“I guess. Have you told your husband?”
She gutted the brownie in her own bowl, shrugging. “He says I’m being overly sensitive.”
“No. You’re not. Would you like me to talk to him?”
She frowned. “My husband?”
“No. Well, I can talk to him too, if you’d like. But I meant Mr. Marrow.” As soon as the words left my lips I panicked. I wasn’t so sure confronting Marrow was a good idea. Chain saws had never been my favorite thing. Ever since I’d watched the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on a dare.
She shrugged but I saw the hopeful look in her eyes. Swallowing hard, I got up and went to the door, finding it locked like the front door had been. I turned back. “You’ll need to unlock the door.”
She hesitated, but finally settled her fork into the bowl and pushed to her feet. Moving like someone twice her age, she tugged a chain from under her blouse and pulled it over her head. There were two keys on the chain. She used one of them to unlock the door. I assumed the second one would fit the front door.
At least I’d found the locks.
Mrs. Bond pulled the door open and waited, her gaze expectant.
I stood in front of the open door for a moment, torn. If I had my stuff I’d just leave after talking to Marrow. I didn’t want to leave my purse and computer there. I’d only have to come back and get it.
But maybe I could come back when Mr. Bond was home. That idea had appeal. I realized Mrs. Bond was staring at me and gave her a nervous smile. “I’ll just…” Pointing awkwardly toward the back yard, I took a deep breath and marched outside.
Marrow was waiting for me. I was happy to see he’d set the saw down in the grass. As I approached, he jerked his head toward the side yard. I chewed on the inside of my lips, unsure if I wanted to follow him out of sight.
He didn’t wait for me to decide. Marrow strode quickly away, stopping beneath a big tree at the corner of the house. He was frowning as I followed. I stopped several feet away. Out of grabbing range. “Why are you harassing Mrs. Bond?”
My question seemed to surprise him. “Harassing her? I’m not harassing her. I’m just trying to figure out what happened to the old lady.”
I felt my eyes go wide. “Mrs. Mouskawitz? She went home.”
He shook his head. “She’s not at home. And I haven’t seen anybody leave this house all day.”
“Oh no…” My pulse spiked and silvery stars danced before my eyes. “She killed her.”
He stepped closer. “Who killed her?” His brown gaze went wide. “You think Mrs. Bond killed the old lady?”
I wrung my hands. “I don’t know what else to think. She was there one minute and now she’s gone. Brenda…Mrs. Bond…told me she’d gone home.”
“That’s a long way to go to murder,” Marrow said, fixing me with a narrowed gaze.
I opened my mouth to explain but closed it again. How did I explain the knife and my assumptions about the door in the breezeway. “I just get a bad vibe from her.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I hear that. She’s really odd. I don’t know how that husband of hers puts up with her.”
“From what she tells me he doesn’t much. He’s apparently gone all the time.”
I looked him over, realizing I’d never seen him actually use any of the tools he always seemed to be carting around. “Why are you so interested? And what are you doing here at this time of night. You’re pretty involved in the goings on in the neighborhood for a gardener.”
Hi gaze turned hard. “I care about my clients.”
“Okay…” I waited for him to tell me how that answered my questions.
Finally, he sighed, looking down at his scuffed work boots. “Look, I’m kind of spooked if you want to know the truth. First that corpse ends up on your porch and then Bill gets killed…”
The way he said Billy’s name, I got the impression he knew him better than he’d let on. “You and Billy M were friends?”
“Not friends, exactly. But I’d known him for a long time. We went to high school together.”
“You don’t say.” The plot thickened. If Billy was involved in the thefts in the area, maybe Marrow was too. What better cover for a lookout than a gardener. Nobody would think twice about him skulking around. And he could let the thieves know when the house was empty.
I tried to hide my thoughts, covering my speculation with what I thought was an innocent sounding question. “Who do you think killed him?”
“Bill?” Tony asked. He shook his head. “I don’t know. He seemed harmless enough. Just a guy who was trying to take care of his mom.”
Okay, I wasn’t buying that. But whatever. “He must have made somebody mad.”
Marrow’s gaze slid away and he suddenly became a bit twitchy. He was clearly hiding something. “I don’t know. But I feel like I owe it to him to protect his mom.”
I flinched. What if Mrs. M. was already dead? How would he react? I decided I didn’t want to be alone with him if we discovered that. “If you think she’s in danger, maybe we should call the police.”
He nodded. “You’re right. I’ll do that. I’ll call that uniform…what was his name?”
He was looking at me strangely, which made me wonder what he thought I knew. “Peter Heck?”
“Yeah, that’s him. You’re friends with him, aren’t you?”
I snorted. “No. Why would you think that?”
“I saw him at your house. You seemed pretty cozy.”
Cozy? I frowned, trying to think back to what Marrow could possibly have seen that would lead him to believe that. “Not at all. He stopped by, he said it was to check on me, but I suspect he was checking up on me to make sure I hadn't gnomed anybody else to death.”
“He thinks you murdered the guy on your porch?” Marrow looked understandably surprised.
“Yeah. Do you believe it?”
He shook his head, “Cops have no imagination at all.”
“Right? I’d have to be pretty stupid to leave the corpse on my own porch if I’d killed him.”
He nodded, eyeing me with new intensity. “Unless you didn’t have time to cart if off yet.”
I frowned. “I didn’t kill Oscar.”
“That’s his name? You knew him before he was killed?”
A car door slammed around the front of the house and I jerked my gaze in that direction. “That’s probably Mr. Bond. I have to go.” I started around the house, Marrow’s gaze making my skin prickle with awareness. I didn’t look back and a moment later I heard the chain saw rev into life.
I walked faster, nearly running as I rounded the corner of the house. And skidded to a stop when I saw the police cruiser sitting in the driveway.
Officer Heck turned as I came around the corner, one eyebrow peaking in surprise. “Ms. Prince. What are you doing here?”
I hurried over to him and tugged his arm, pulling him away from the front door. “The Bonds invited me to stay because of all the stuff that’s been happening.”
His gaze moved over my shoulder down the street. “That was nice of them.”
I nodded. “Thing is, Mr. Bond isn’t here and his wife is…” I looked at him, hoping he’d met the woman and would understand what I was trying to say without my clarifying it.
He frowned. “She’s what?”
“Well, she’s just different. Uncomfortable, is the best word I can come up with.”
His frown deepened. “And you’re telling me this, why?”
Behind me, the chainsaw roared into life and I jumped, my hand flying to cover my chest as my heart thumped harder. I threw a glare over my shoulder but Tony Marrow was busily shaving branches off a tree that looked perfectly healthy.
Officer Heck narrowed his gaze at the gardener.
“The thing is…” I shouted.
Officer Heck said, “What? I can’t hear you…”
“I think she might have…”
Heck shook his head and cupped one of his ears. “I can’t…”
Jeezopete! I moved closer and raised my voice even higher, shouting in his face. “I THINK…”
The chainsaw stopped.
“MRS BOND KILLED MRS MOUSKAWITZ AND STUFFED HER IN A CLOSET!”
My voice rang out around me, seeming to echo down the street, reverberating against the houses and coming back to me sounding half crazed. People up and down the street stopped what they were doing and turned my way.
Officer Heck’s gaze narrowed further and his mouth formed into a tight line.
I heard a cough behind me and had to clench my hands into fists to keep from showing Tony Marrow the little birdie.
“I know that sounds crazy,” I whispered, thinking to offset my previous screaming somehow.
“Crazy?” Heck asked. “Crazy, you say,” There was a slightly rabid gleam in his eyes as he bent closer, one skinny finger stabbing the air in front of my face. “Ms. Prince, you passed crazy a long time ago. You’re well into straight jacket territory.”
“I know it sounds strange…”
“Yeah, Mrs. Prince. It sounds strange. Because it’s beyond ridiculous. You think that mouse of a woman in there is capable of murdering that sweet old lady?”
“Well, I…” I had thought that. But with the force of his derision and anger slamming into me, I was wavering. “I don’t know…”
“I suppose next you’re going to tell me she killed Oscar Greenbottom and Billy Mouskawitz too?”
“I doubt…” Letting the words trail away, I realized he was right. It was just too implausible to believe that BB killed both men as well as Mrs. M. But thinking there was more than one killer working under two different agendas was even more implausible. I expelled air. “You’re right. I’m letting my imagination run away with me. I’m sorry.” I had no idea why I was apologizing to the cop. It was just that he seemed to be taking it so personally. I guessed he thought I was interfering in police work. I could understand that. I mean, I kind of was.
He skimmed me with a cold glare and turned away, striding toward the front door. I hurried after him, determined to get my stuff and make my escape. It was doubtful Mrs. Bond would want me to stick around after my megaphone mouth accused her of murder in front of the entire neighborhood.
Officer Heck knocked on the door as I climbed the porch step behind him. A moment later it opened and Brenda Bond appeared, a wide smile on her face. She gave a gleeful laugh and threw herself into the cop’s arms, kissing him all over his face.
I blinked in surprise. What exactly was I witnessing? Were the two having an affair? If so, Brenda Bond didn’t seem to feel the need to be discreet.
I cleared my throat self-consciously and she stepped back, turning pink. “Oh. Hi. I didn’t see you there.”
“I’m just going to get my stuff and go home.”
She frowned. “You don’t have to leave. Pete doesn’t bite. Do you Pete?” She favored him with another smile. Her pleasure on seeing him was so genuine it made me reassess her entire personality. Maybe she was just a woman in an unhappy marriage.
Pete glared at me.
I cleared my throat again. “It’s okay. I should go.”
“Well. Okay. But will you sit with us for a while before you go….?
“She says she needs to go, Brenn,” Pete said. “Let her go.”
I was grateful for his interference, despite the fact that he obviously resented my being there. “I’ll just go get my stuff.” I pushed past Brenda Bond, all but running down the hall to the room where I’d been staying. I slowed as I passed Mrs. M’s room, throwing a glance back toward the still open front door.
Brenda Bond was leaning against the doorframe, laughing easily. She wasn’t paying any attention to me, so I slipped inside, determined to see what I could see inside the room. I had no idea what that would be, but I didn’t want to leave without taking the opportunity to at least look.
The front door closed with a snap and I jumped, hurrying back to the door to peer carefully out toward the entrance. I was just in time to see Brenda and Pete heading toward the kitchen. She was draped over him like a floozy’s feather boa and he had an arm around her waist.
I shook my head. The world was so much smaller than it should have been. I’d have never put those two together in a million years. Yet there they were.
I moved quickly over to the bed and searched underneath, finding a well-worn blue quilted, slipper and a few dust bunnies. I checked the comforter and around the bed for any signs of blood or struggle. There was nothing.
I moved over to the closet and glanced around. It was mostly empty, with only a few boxes that seemed to hold out of season clothes, and a plastic box with compartments that held beading supplies. BB certainly was a handy gal.
I closed the closet door quietly and moved into the bathroom. It was smaller than the one off my bedroom. More dated. Glossy wallpaper with geometric shapes in brown, black and silver covered the walls and the toilet, tub and sink were all pink. But it was spotless, everything in its place, and the contents of the drawers in the old Formica vanity were unremarkable. Travel sized supplies and a few rolls of toilet paper were all I found.
As I was closing the cabinet under the sink, I spied something hanging from the shower head. I walked over, pulled the chocolate brown shower curtain back and saw a tiny, pale blue cardigan hanging from a wire hangar. I reached out and touched it, remembering Mrs. Mouskawitz wearing it one day when I saw her and Penny in the yard.
It was damp. Frowning, I tugged the hangar off the showerhead and looked it over more closely. There was an irregularly shaped stain on the back, about the size of a plum and faded from what had clearly been an attempt to scrub it out.
It was the color of old blood.
My pulse picked up and I swallowed hard, wondering if Pete would listen to reason if I showed it to him. I’d decided to try, was turning on my heel to go and show it to the young cop, when the door to the bedroom slammed shut.
I ran out and over to the door, my heart beating against my ribs, and tried the knob.
It was locked. I was trapped. Again.